A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century

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Release Date: 
October 3, 2016
Crown Forum
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William F. Buckley, Jr. led an extraordinary life. He founded and edited National Review, authored more than 50 books, hosted PBS‘s Firing Line for 30 years, wrote a nationally syndicated column, and fostered and organized the intellectual foundation of the modern American conservative movement.

As Fox News’ James Rosen, the editor of this latest collection of Buckley’s writings, points out in the Introduction, Buckley also “met everybody, knew everybody, hosted everybody you ever wanted to meet, skewered everybody who needed skewering, carried on lengthy and amusing correspondence with everybody worth writing to, and in general lived life on a grand scale.”

Rosen has collected more than 50 eulogies that Buckley wrote about historical figures, American presidents, famous writers and intellectuals, celebrities, family members, friends, and enemies—what Rosen describes  as a “far-ranging survey of the famous and obscure, the heroic and the villainous, the charmed and the doomed.”  

Rosen deftly introduces each eulogy or obituary by briefly describing the historical circumstances and, when appropriate, Buckley’s personal interaction with his subject.

Buckley’s eulogies are both subjectively personal and objectively historical. They combine fond and introspective reminiscences of friendship and professional respect with rigorous and honest appraisals of the careers and personal lives of his subjects.

Less than a month after President Kennedy’s assassination, for example, Buckley noted the young president’s “courage, dignity, fortitude, toughmindedness, independence,” but also lamented the rhetorical excesses in the wake of the assassination that ignored JFK’s “great failures.”

When Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, Buckley wrote that he was a “patriot, who cared for his country,” but heaped criticism on the failures of the Great Society and his disastrous mishandling of the war in Southeast Asia.

His lengthy obituary of Richard Nixon, which appeared in National Review in May 1994, praised the 37th president as a leader who took “very large strides in history.” Nixon, Buckley wrote, had no special personal talent but achieved political success through the “force of his extraordinary personality, his unswerving determination to succeed, and his mastery of the political craft.”

Yet, Buckley pointed out, Nixon “lost the Vietnam War, pulled out of the Bretton Woods alliance, declared wage and price controls, and . . . toasted the achievements of Mao Tse-tung.” Nixon, Buckley continued, “earned the special affection and admiration of U.S. conservatives without ever significantly advancing their cause.”

Buckley’s obituary for Winston Churchill described the great British leader as “[t]he soldier who loved poetry. The historian who loved to paint. The diplomat who thrived on indiscretion. The patriot with international vision.” But he also wrote that Churchill was equally culpable with Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in ensuring “the expansion of the Communist system over whole continents.”

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Buckley praised his Christian faith and his “extraordinary capacity to inspire,” but criticized King’s “terribly mistaken judgment” in comparing the U.S. actions in Vietnam to the crimes committed by Nazi Germany.

The book includes interesting eulogies of Buckley’s friends who were also intellectual adversaries, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Allard Lowenstein, and Norman Mailer. There are also tributes to Buckley’s intellectual compatriots, such as Russell Kirk and Milton Friedman, as well as eulogies of celebrities, such as Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, and David Niven (who was also a close friend).

Frequently, the eulogies tell us as much about Buckley—the writer, the editor, the sailor, the world traveler—as they do about his subjects, especially when those subjects are family (his wife, father, mother, and brother-in-law) and friends.

One chapter entitled “Nemeses,” includes Buckley’s eulogies of the traitor Alger Hiss, Buckley’s 1965 mayoral opponent John Lindsay, the novelist Ayn Rand, Nelson Rockefeller, who long headed the liberal wing of the Republican Party, liberal historian Arthur Schlessinger, Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt.

His obituary of Mrs. Roosevelt, which appeared in National Review in January 1963, more than three months after her death, gave the former First Lady credit for having good intentions but derided those like Time magazine who said that she had a great mind.

“Hers is the age,” Buckley wrote, “of undifferentiated goodness, of permissive egalitarianism.” “H]er most enduring bequest,” he continued, “was the capacity to oversimplify problems,” to encourage those “who wish to pitch the nation and the world onto humanitarian crusades,” which ignored reality and led to misery and “messing up the world in general.”

Perhaps the most interesting piece in the book is Buckley’s lengthy treatment of his friendship with Whittaker Chambers, the brilliant writer and ex-Soviet spy who exposed communist infiltration of the U.S. government and suffered thereafter the repeated slings and arrows of the liberal establishment.

Chambers, it seems clear, was Buckley’s most consequential friend, and he fondly recalls “the true gaiety of his nature, the appeal of his mysterious humor, the instant communicability of an overwhelming personal tenderness.”

It has been more than eight years since William F. Buckley, Jr. died, but his writings continue to stimulate, inform, and entertain.